…Alaska. It is often one of my favourite literary haunts. Big country, with big mountains, isolation, and seriously tough conditions.
It is an escape that has brought the best out of many a scribe. From the sheer exhilaration of the sled-dog mushers and the brutal demands of the Iditarod, to the life-saving serum runs, there are many terrific reads around the exploits of huskies – Gay Salisbury’s The Cruelest Miles and John Balzar’s splendid Lure of the Quest come to mind. There are tales of those gold-rush days on the Yukon, such as Jack London’s, that grip us from childhood.
But Alaska comes into its own from those seeking isolation, testing themselves, escaping. I am thinking here of Brian Keenan, after his captivity, (Four Quarters of Light) and of Lynn Schooler (The Blue Bear, Walking Home), and even Jonathan Raban though I have yet to be able to read his Passage to Juneau to the end.
It was all brought back to mind recently. I had rattled through Gay Salisbury’s well researched tale, and then heard Guy Grieve on the radio. One Man’s Wilderness had been on the radar for some time. It arrived recently. This is a story from the 60s, one man living a life, leaving a legacy. Richard Preonekke kept a diary, and his pal Sam Keith wrote up his notes, told his tale. Dick took photos as well, and they give us some of the stunning majesty of the wilderness.
It’s one of those dreams, the sort that Guy Grieve had – alone in the middle of nowhere, build a cabin, survive. Never mind the bears and the wolves, plenty fish in the lakes, caribou in the hills.
Well Proenekke did just that. Today the Dick Proenekke Historic Cabin Site is managed by the National Park Service. Much of Keith’s narrative takes us through the building period, from felling trees to turning them into a home, fitting it out so that fifty years later it remain one of the finest examples of what can be achieved. Marvel at his skills. Reading of it may seem a bit dry at times, but when you come to the pictures…
Proenekke was a great friend of the nature all around him, a respecter of the winter ice on the lake, and of those living with him, facing the same struggles for survival, for food. Picture a rack of caribou antlers swimming, wolves in solitary file crossing the ice, or even the squirrel in the chimney stack, the birds pecking at his frozen food cache.
I’m left wanting more, and wondering who it was a I lent my copy of Grieve’s Call of the Wild to. For that was a splendid read, an escape from the Borders commuter run to Edinburgh’s offices; a man finding himself, and a family back home finding their man. Since then the Grieves have done other things, based now on Mull. I haven’t read the tale of their sail across the Atlantic, but having heard that radio programme, perhaps I should.
Alaska has a lot to answer for.